Lessons on Teamwork from the Mountains

I love to climb. When I was 6 months old I learned to climb out of my crib. I drove my parents nuts. As a young man, I used to read about epic mountain climbs and dreamt of standing on top of remote summits. When I was old enough to do it for real, the first thing I learned was that I couldn’t do it alone.

Let’s get something straight: I’m no great mountain climber. On a good day, I’m mediocre. But I love being out in the mountains, and climbing with great team. I learn something about myself and how work with others every time I go.

In the summer of 2011, I had a serious climbing accident (which is a story for another post). It took a long time before I was ready to get back out there. On my first big climb, I was scared silly. I wouldn’t have been able to do it if it wasn’t for the bond I had with my climbing partners.

There are a lot of parallels between teamwork in the mountains and teamwork in the office. All the great summits I have reached at work, I did as part of team.

Here are a few things I have learned from my alpine experiences:

  • Make a plan – Collect as much information as you can, then make a plan (equipment needed, schedule, roles, anticipate difficult sections, etc.). (It’s ok to adjust the plan as you go along?)Once you start the plan, you will constantly need to adjust it.  
  • Be honest and open – You have to be truthful about how you are doing as the climb (project, plan) unfolds. If you’re struggling, you have to let your teammates know. If you are concerned about something, this is not the time to keep it to yourself. If you make a mistake, own up to it. If someone else makes a mistake, it’s your job to let them know.
  • Use the group to make decisions – Collect information from everyone and then make a decision as a team. It’s not about voting, or working towards full consensus, or having one person make all the decisions. Once the decision is made, if you don’t like the group’s decision, you need to suck it up and go with it.  
  • Support your teammates – The people you can trust are the ones who are watching out for you. That is, making sure you don’t fall, or get off route, as well as encouraging you when things get tough. When you are part of a team, you also have to look out for everyone, even the ones you may not be fond of.
  • Stay together – You can only look after each other if you stay together. It’s about communication. If you go off on your own, you can get into trouble quickly.
  • Stay focused – On a long climb, you get tired and can start focusing in on your own stuff and lose track of the rest of the team. You can also become complacent and miss potential dangers, like falling. Climbers have a saying: “What follows complacency is the ground.”
  • Understand that the destination is the journey. The summit maybe the goal, but working well with others is what it’s really about.
  • Accept failure. It’s guaranteed in mountaineering that you are not going to reach every summit you attempt. If you do, then you are doing something wrong. When you do fail to summit, it’s bad form to start blaming other members of your team. You learn what you can from it, and then you start planning your next climb.

What lessons have you learned about teamwork away from the office?

 

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